The Four Great Classical novels are generally regarded by scholars to be the pinnacle of China's pre-modern fiction. Written during the Ming and Qing Dynasties when literary creativity flourished, these four novels - Three Kingdoms, Outlaws of the Marsh, Journey to the West and A Dream of Red Mansions - remained very popular to this day. Even now, they have continued to influence many Chinese literary works, movies, games and other forms of entertainment throughout China and other parts of East Asia such as Japan, Korea and Vietnam. They have also been translated into different languages, as well as published in abridged or simplified versions, to be enjoyed by a wider audience throughout the world.
(1) Three Kingdoms (also known as Romance of the Three Kingdoms)
The novel, which was the first historical novel to appear in China, was written by Luo Guanzhong in the 14th century. Luo based his novel on both folk tales and historical records of the conflicts between the kingdoms of Wei, Shu and Wu (220-265 AD), established by Cao Cao, Liu Bei and Sun Quan, respectively. The kingdoms of Wei, Shu and Wu were based in Northern China, Western Sichuan and south of the lower Yangtze River. The novel chronicled the lives of these leaders and their generals, the strategies and wars that competed for the domination of China. It also vividly described character profiles and spectacular war scenes. Using simple and succinct language, Luo created 1,798 figures with each having an unique personality. The more famous ones included the benevolent Liu Bei, the ambitious prime minister Cao Cao, the courageous warrior Guan Yu and the crafty advisor Zhuge Liang. In the novel, there are many encounters between fierce warriors, brilliant military strategies, and suspenseful intrigues, though it is utlimately about human motivation, loyalty and the greed for power.
The novel incorporated available historical records, poetic works from the Tang Dynasty and operas from the Yuan Dynasty. It also highlighted Confucian moral values, which were prominent during Luo's time, such as loyalty to one's family, friends and superiors.
(2) Outlaws of the Marsh (also known as Water Margin)
The novel, which was written around the same time as Three Kingdoms, was by Shi Nai'an. It is based on folklore about a band of rebels during the end of the Northern Song Dynasty era. Comprising 105 heroes and 3 heroines, the novel is also a powerful satire on official corruption and feudal oppression. The novel provided vivid accounts of how these "outlaws", who had gathered at Liangshan Marsh, stood up for the poor against the corrupt ruling class, as well as moving stories of love, friendship and kindness. After defeating the imperial armies sent to suppress them, they were eventually granted amnesty by Emperor Hui Zhong, who recruited them to form a military contingent and embark on campaigns to resist foreign aggression.
It is the first vernacular novel in Chinese history written in Chapter Style, which is a type of traditional Chinese novel with each chapter headed by a couplet giving the gist of its content. In total, the novel describes a total of 787 characters, with each having its own characteristics and detailed descriptions. The novel is well known for its writing style that is based on folk language.
(3) Journey to the West
The novel was written by Wu Cheng'en in the 16th century. Based on the true story of Xuanzhang, a Tang Dynasty monk who made a long and dangerous overland trip to India to bring the Buddhist scriptures back to China, Wu's novel is a fictional account in which the monk was protected by Sun Wukong (the Monkey King) and two other disciples during his perilous journey.
In the story, the monk was instructed by the Bodhisattva Guan Yin to travel to the "Western Regions" to obtain the sacred sutras. Together with three disciples - Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie (part human, part pig) and Sha Wujing (a grisly-looking sand demon, who was formerly a general from Heaven) - and a white horse (who was previously a dragon prince), the monk's journey was marked with numerous difficulties and challenges. (The four characters agreed to accompany the monk on his journey as a form of atonement of their past sins.) The novel is a captivating account of the pilgrims' journey, with them getting into trouble in unexpected places and outwitting demons and monsters with tricks.
Deeply steeped in Chinese mythology and traditional values, the novel, while commonly viewed by many, particularly children, as an adventure story, can also be seen as an individual pilgrimage towards enlightenment. The novel is also regarded by scholars as a realistic portrayal and critique of the political and social circumstances of the Ming Dynasty at the time.
(4) A Dream of Red Mansions (also known as Dream of the Red Chambers)
The novel, which was written in the middle of the 18th century, consists of 120 chapters, of which the first 80 were written by Cao Xueqin and the remaining 40 by Gao E. and Cheng Weiyuan. Recounting the tragic love story of Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu as the main theme, it also describes the fate of four feudal noble families. The novel is believed to reflect the rise and fall of Cao Xueqin's own family and the Qing Dynasty. In addition to its huge cast of characters and interesting plot developments, the novel is also regarded by scholars as a treaure trove of information about the lifestyle of artistocratic families during the Qing Dynasty, given its precise and detailed observation of the latter.
The story is about Jia Baoyu, a carefree adolescent from a rich and powerful family who lived in an idyllic household surrounded by his female cousins and maids. Jia was also in love with his cousin Lin Daiyu but he was subsequently tricked into marrying another cousin. The relationship among the three main characters against the backdrop of the Jia family's decline forms the main story in the novel. The Jia family eventually fell into disfavour with the Emperor, with their mansion and family fortune confiscated.